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Hamptons Life

Mar 17, 2009 1:26 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

'Six Degrees of Separation' opens in Quogue

Mar 17, 2009 1:26 PM

Of “Six Degrees of Separation,” playwright John Guare once observed that in one sense, it took him a lifetime to write, yet putting it down on the page seemed to take no time at all.

You could argue that his play has the opposite effect on audiences, who are carried along at a swift, intermission-less clip but left wondering—perhaps for the rest of their lives—just how well they know those closest to them and, indeed, whether it is even possible to make meaningful human connections in times as fragmented and inauthentic as ours.

“That’s just the craft,” said Mr. Guare, when asked in a phone interview about the long gestation of his play. The writing of his 1971 hit, “The House of Blue Leaves,” had taken a similar course, added the playwright. After making a start, “it took another five years” to write what followed, he said. “You just don’t sit down and write a play.”

When it opened in New York in 1990, the darkly witty tale of a privileged Upper East Side white couple and the young black man who knows just how to play them packed theaters here and abroad, garnered multiple awards and was made into a movie with Stockard Channing, Will Smith and Donald Sutherland in 1993. Since then, its title has entered the lexicon—handy shorthand for expressing astonishment when it turns out that someone we know is another friend’s aunt—and has never disappeared from the regional repertoire.

Tonight, the Hampton Theatre Company will open its production of “Six Degrees of

Separation,” directed by Sarah Hunnewell, at Quogue Community Hall for a run that continues through April 5. The large cast is led by New York actor Christopher Burris as Paul, the charming intruder, with HTC veteran Andrew Botsford and Cheri Wicks (making her second appearance with the company) playing the couple that takes him in: Flan Kittredge, the high-rolling art dealer and his wife, Ouisa, who appears at first to be as shallow as her husband.

Others in the cast are Vincent Cinque, Kyle Cranston, Pam Kern, Billy Finn, Terrance Fiore, Bob Kaplan, Nick Masson, Keely McGoldrick, Luke Nilsson, Billy Paterson, Vincent Rasulo, Nicole Stanek, and Andrew Stein.

The plot of the play was inspired by the exploits of one David Hampton, who gained infamy in the 1980s after posing as Sidney Poitier’s son and charming a number of wealthy Manhattanites into giving him not only shelter but money. (A footnote to Mr. Hampton’s story: as a young man in New York, actor—and Southampton Press arts editor—Andrew Botsford dated the daughter of one of the con man’s victims, the legendary Newsweek editor and Columbia School of Journalism dean, Osborn Elliott—yet another example of the six-degrees theorem.)

At the start of the show, the Kittredges are entertaining a potentially useful friend at their Manhattan apartment, trading brittle ripostes and playing their self-assigned parts as sophisticates in the mold of Tom Wolfe’s “master of the universe” and his socially savvy consort. Suddenly the evening is interrupted and made infinitely more interesting when Paul, who claims to be a friend of their children, bursts in with a tale of having been mugged.

Things move very quickly from there.

Speaking recently of the play’s fast-moving, uninterrupted 90-minute format, Ms. Hunnewell credited the playwright for his deftness in making each minute count.

“It is wonderfully written, with such economy” she said. “It’s lean, short and fast. It moves like lightning.”

As Paul goes to work on his prey, waxing lyrical about “Catcher in the Rye,” displaying his imaginative intellect, culinary finesse and hip command of upper-crust cant, there is a change in tone that is so nimbly negotiated, suggested Ms. Hunnewell, as to be almost seamless.

“It starts out like a drawing room comedy,” she said, “and it goes from that sophisticated, glib social commentary to heartbreak.”

Called a tragicomedy by some critics, “Six Degrees of Separation” can be very funny in its biting commentary on the social foibles of Uptown strivers. But, as Frank Rich pointed out in his 1990 New York Times review, Mr. Guare’s characters are far from cartoons and there is an underlying compassion in his exploration of their failure to commit to each other in a meaningful way.

Paul, wrote Mr. Rich, “becomes the fuse that ignites a larger investigation of the many degrees of separation that prevent all the people in the play from knowing one another and from knowing themselves.”

The play “explores the enormous disconnect between people,” affirmed Ms. Hunnewell. And for all of its potentially tragic consequences, she said, the alienation of children from parents has nonetheless provided great sport for the cast’s young actors, who get to scream insults at the parents they loathe for their phoniness, avarice and vanity.

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